REVIEW: Robert Gammon on The King’s Singers and Fretwork at Ryedale Festival

The King’s Singers: “Aural clarity blending seamlessly with the purity of Fretwork’s viols”

Ryedale Festival: The King’s Singers and Fretwork, St Peter’s Church, Norton, July 14

TWO of British music’s most venerable small groups, The King’s Singers and Fretwork, united to open this year’s Ryedale Festival in fine style. Marking the 400th anniversary of the deaths of composers Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd, the concert mirrored their recently released album Tom And Will.

Weelkes’s Hark All Ye Lovely Saints Above set the tone for the evening, The King’s Singers aural clarity blending seamlessly with the purity of Fretwork’s viols. His mischievous Thule, The Period Of Cosmography was given a kaleidoscopic performance with fleet changes of sonic colour, the singers revelling in the words.

Byrd’s This Sweet And Merry Month Of May was joyous: classic King’s Singers material served up with relish. Their purposeful, surefooted and expressive negotiation of Byrd’s uncompromising counterpoint in O Salutaris Hostia was a marvel.

As well as underpinning vocal numbers, Fretwork contributed instrumental consort music, always easy to listen to, rich and resonant. Rhythms in Byrd’s Prelude & Ground, The Queen’s Goodnight, were nicely sprung.

But his Canon Fantasy was peculiarly unsmiling, conveying but little delight in its imitative cleverness, no sense of the lead violist challenging the treble to reciprocate his flights of fancy.

Appropriately for a death anniversary there were tributes: Byrd’s tribute to his teacher Tallis and Weelkes’s to his teacher Thomas Morley were each succeeded by a modern counterpart commissioned specially for Tom And Will.

Sir James MacMillan’s Ye Sacred Muses is richly textured, expertly crafted, its ending quietly affecting. Roderick Williams’s Death, Be Not Proud is right up these performers’ street, with harmonic effects showcasing the familiar King’s Singers sound world. More than twice as long as their models, these new works overburdened the concert’s long first half.

A nice touch was the short first-half encore incorporating the Ryedale Primary Choir, the fruits of a masterclass earlier in the day. An initiative supported by the Richard Shephard Music Foundation, it’s lovely that these seasoned pros, and the festival, take time out to encourage such youngsters.

Review by Robert Gammon